The Astronomical Significance of Spirals in Neolithic Art

Since the 1960’s archaeologists have somewhat grudgingly accepted that many solstice and equinox alignments are evident at Neolithic stone circles and temples. We also find spiral decoration and motifs on some of these monuments and on other artefacts worldwide; most of these date from the third millennium BC (or between about 3100 BC and 1500 BC).

 

An excellent summary of these spirals and related cup-and-ring art in Britain and Ireland is given by van Hoek. [Note1] He suggests that many more Neolithic spirals have been misidentified as cup-and-ring marks because they are so badly worn.

 

In my own earlier books Atlantis of the West and Under Ancient Skies I proposed that this spiral art records a wobble of the Earth’s axis of rotation, consequent upon an astronomical event that occurred in the late fourth millennium BC (around 3100 BC). In order for the Earth’s axial tilt (the obliquity) to be modified requires an external force such as an energetic impact event to excite it, or perhaps something more exotic. It would then have to wobble until stability could again be restored.

 

The Earth has two modes of transient wobble, one (the Chandler Wobble) is damped after about twenty years, but the other mode is much longer-lived and may persist for perhaps two-and-a-half thousand years. It is vanishingly small on the Earth today and geophysicists still don’t really understand what it might look like (should something trigger it). For a long-time the motion didn’t even have a name (or rather it was misnamed) but geophysicists now term it the Free Core Nutation. It would occur if the principal axes of the Earth’s liquid core and the outer mantle somehow became misaligned. [Note 2]

 

If a change of obliquity were in progress then it would become evident as a spiralling motion of the rotational pole about the celestial pole, causing seven-year rhythms in the weather and climate. However, it may not always be a nice neat spiral! Such systems can become chaotic, such as occurs with a double pendulum! [Note 3] Misaligned axes could present a similar problem. So one may see why ancient people, living under such a climate regime, would need to track the irregular spiralling motion of the sky in order to predict the seasons.

 

Here are a few examples of spiral art from the third millennium BC for anyone who wishes to research further into this phenomenon.

Long Meg 3.jpg
Long Meg 2.jpg
Long Meg 1.jpg

Spirals on the Long Meg standing stone, Cumbria:

featured as figure 10.5 of Atlantis of the West and on the cover of: The Atlantis Researches. The notch marks mid-winter sunset on the western horizon as viewed from the stone circle of Long Meg and her Daughters. Date approximately 3000 BC. The drawing that I made in 1990 was art and not intended to be 100% accurate, but as you may see from the photographs, it is closer than some others available on the internet. The Long Meg stone circle remains much as it was built around five-thousand years ago. Click on the photos for links.

Hesy.jpg

Mehen Spirals

 

The spiral ‘gaming board’ discovered in the tomb of Hesy-Ra (Third Dynasty approx 3000BC). It is usually associated with a game called Mehen, after the snake-deity. I suggested that this might be a ‘spiral calendar’ marking the height of the Nile flood over a seven-year cycle. It certainly looks like some form of game; but a spiral of seven turns is a remarkable coincidence.

 

An example is available in the British Museum and of course you can always find more at: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Mehen_(game)

 

I am unaware of any spiral motifs on Egyptian monuments, however we do know that the Old Kingdom pyramid shafts were aligned on the celestial pole and prominent stars; and of course we have the climate references of the seven-good and seven-bad years of the Biblical Joseph story. I shall not open that particular box here!

 

This calendar was further discussed in chapter 10 of Atlantis of the West.

The Phaistos Disk

 

Another spiral from this era is the double-sided Phaistos Disc, now in the Heraklion Museum Crete. The Linear-A hieroglyphs remain undecipherable so we don’t know if it was a calendar. It is loosely dated to the second millennium BC.

For some reason the publisher chose to use it as cover illustration for my book: Atlantis of the West – don’t ask why! Authors have little say in such matters!

Atlantis West1.png
PH_Disc_A_draw.jpg
spiral-stone2-big.jpg

The Spiral Stone, Isle of Man.

 

An unspectacular monument at the roadside not far from Laxey and Cashtal-yn-Ard. The spirals may be seen at bottom left. Uncertain date, but probably Late Neolithic and possibly not in its original location.

 

The spiral was not described in detail by van Hoek (although listed) but should rightly belong with his Galloway-Cumbria grouping.

https://www.waymarking.com/waymarks/WMY3PW_Neolithic_Spiral_Stone_Ballaragh_Isle_of_Man

The Calderstones, Liverpool

The recent history of this monument is a tragedy. The spirals are found on the six stones preserved in a greenhouse within Calderstones Park in Allerton. They were moved from their original location by the former owner during the nineteenth century, so we can no longer test any astronomical alignments. We can’t even be sure whether they were from a stone circle, a chambered cairn, or part of an earlier court cairn dolmen. However, the decoration suggests they were contemporary with other decorated chambers in Ireland and Anglesey. The spirals themselves are incised and quite clear, unlike the Long Meg and Scottish examples; implying that they were mostly decorative art rather than practical instructions for observing the alignments. Pictures and history may be found in these links:

 

https://www.megalithic.co.uk/article.php?sid=6269

https://www.liverpoolpicturebook.com/2014/10/calderstonespark.html

https://www.themodernantiquarian.com/site/248/calderstones.html

Bryn Celli Ddu, Anglesey

Another reconstructed mound that prevents us from proving any former astronomical alignment associated with the spiral. The 1847 engraving of the unreconstructed mound in the link below illustrates the problem! The spiral itself forms the head of an elaborate snake motif on the reconstructed entrance stone. Age is Late Neolithic. However, unlike other monuments discussed the alignment appears to have been towards the midsummer solstice rather than midwinter. The entire area shows evidence of later ritual use by the Druids right up to the period of the Roman destruction of their so-called  'sacred groves'.

 

http://www.stone-circles.org.uk/stone/bryncelliddu.htm

For a discussion of 'roof'boxes' at this and other passage graves see:

http://www.ancient-wisdom.com/walesbryncelliddu.htm

Newgrange, Ireland

The reconstructed ‘passage grave’ in the Boyne valley, Ireland exhibits spiral decoration on the external stones as well as a three-leafed spiral at the end of the main chamber. At midwinter sunrise a narrow beam of light from the ‘roof box’ above the entrance briefly illuminates this spiral motif. The beam therefore would have been ideal for tracking an abnormal variation of the sun’s position. Probable date: 3150±100 BC from radiocarbon (see: O’Kelly 1974). Unfortunately, the monument has been reconstructed so nearby unreconstructed Knowth and Dowth offer a more reliable measure of ancient alignments.

https://www.nature.com/articles/337343a0

https://www.academia.edu/11482254/Computing_the_Winter_Solstice_At_Newgrange_Was_Neolithic_Science_Equal_To_or_Better_Than_Ancient_Greek_or_Roman_Science

https://www.irishtimes.com/news/ireland/irish-news/newgrange-sun-trap-may-be-only-50-years-old-says-archaeologist-1.2913483

Knowth and Dowth

The other stone circles of the Boyne Valley exhibit both  spirals and alignments to midwinter sunrise and the equinox. Horizon alignments to the sun and moon could easily be obscured by bad weather, so it would make sense to use a range of seasonal alignments in order to increase the likelihood of good seeing conditions. Modern astronomers will know all about the frustrations of cloudy weather! A comprehensive (but for myself unconvincing) paper by Turler expands upon the earlier calendrical interpretations of Brennan. These theories would treat the art as flattened-out representations of the helical spiraling of sun and moon in the sky as the year progresses. The principal reason why I doubt these explanations is that such complex observatories are not necessary to devise a practical calendar; Mayans, Indians, Chinese and Babylonians all succeeded in devising complex calendars without building passage graves or stone circles.

https://arxiv.org/ftp/arxiv/papers/1903/1903.07393.pdf

https://www.newgrange.com/knowth.htm

http://www.visual-arts-cork.com/prehistoric/knowth-megalithic-tomb.htm

http://www.megalithicireland.com/Dowth%20Passage%20Tomb.html

http://www.visual-arts-cork.com/prehistoric/knowth-megalithic-tomb.htm

The Scottish carved stone balls

These curiosities were found at various sites, of which the best example is the Towie Ball from Aberdeenshire, with its spiral markings. They are often found associated with Late Neolithic stone circles and were carved with flint tools. An explanation of a practical application for such objects is awaited, as with the spiral ‘calendars’ discussed above.

https://edition.cnn.com/2018/06/29/world/scottish-carved-stone-balls/index.html

https://www.megalithic.co.uk/article.php?sid=2146412410

Tarxien, Malta

The temples of Malta date from between 3500 BC and 2500 BC and are older than Egyptian pyramids. The temple at Tarxien however dates from the later phase after 3000 BC. The spiral is clearly being used as decorative art, but again, the date is significant.  According to author C.R. Sant all the temples on Malta and Gozo exhibit solstice alignments; and  that all these alignments changed around 3000 BC. See:

https://www2.stetson.edu/neolithic-studies/neolithic-art/neolithic-art-national-museum-of-archaeology-in-valletta-malta-2/

http://www.bradshawfoundation.com/malta/tarxien.php

It’s a work-in-progress. Further examples of spirals will be added here…

Knowth & Dowth, Native American rock-art, Gavrinis and more...

 

Comment:

Regardless of the utility of the spiral to represent an astronomical phenomenon, it is always possible that the occurrence of any individual spiral motif, in other eras and contexts, could just be art; for example the Tarxien and Newgrange examples, as contrasted with those found inside the chambers or on aligned-stones. Context and dating is important. I would agree with van Hoek that cup-and-ring art may be older than spiral art, especially in a British-Irish context but disagree in that the use of spirals in so-called ‘passage graves’ should be older than those at outdoor stone circles. An internal beam is useful for practical measurement of where the sun is, whereas an outdoor alignment would be better for ritual purposes involving an audience.

Note 1:

The study by van Hoek really cannot be praised enough. He concludes that the spiral art originated in south-west Scotland bordering the Irish Sea, based on the concentration of examples found there. I have tried not to unnecessarily repeat his work here, rather to complement it with additional British examples that he did not stress, together with other worldwide examples of spiral motifs on temples and artifacts.

 

Note 2:

In older geophysical papers the core-wobble was unrecognised and was termed the nearly-diurnal wobble, which is just the body-related part of the motion, whereas the core nutation is the component in space that Toomre (1974) reminded us should be some 460 times larger in amplitude. Due to the lack of a recognised name I gave it the name core-mantle precession in my book The Atlantis Researches: the Earth’s Rotation in Mythology and Prehistory (1995). These names are all the same motion. For the non-geophysicists (in which list I include myself) Toomre’s paper is relatively lucid to read for anyone seeking a ‘plain-English’ point of entry to this complex subject. [2] Generally speaking, geophysicists discuss theoretical motions in maths among themselves with little concern whether such theoretical excitations may actually have happened on the real Earth in recent prehistory; or that non-specialists might also have an interest in the subject. A more up to date bibliography of research is given in reference [5] and one of the clearest explanations of the Poinsot kinematics may be found on pages 52-58 of reference [6].

 

Note 3:

Would all please appreciate that everything discussed here is based on standard geophysics and has nothing to do with Velikovsky! The core wobble of the Earth is a transient motion and could become chaotic in extreme circumstances as occurs with the double pendulum. [3]

References

1) van Hoek, Maarten A.M. (1993) The Spiral in British and Irish Neolithic Rock Art, Glasgow Archeological Journal, Vol 18, Issue 18

https://www.euppublishing.com/doi/pdfplus/10.3366/gas.1993.18.18.11

2) Toomre, A. (1974) On the nearly diurnal wobble of the earth. Geophysical Journal of the Royal Astronomical Society, 38(2):335–348, 1974. ISSN 1365-246X. doi: 10.1111/j.1365-246X.tb04126.x.

http://dx.doi.org/10.1111/j.1365-246X.1974.tb04126.x

3) https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=d0Z8wLLPNE0

4) https://www.iers.org/IERS/EN/Science/EarthRotation/PolarMotionPlot.html

 

5) Ferrándiz, José & Navarro, Juan & Escapa, Alberto & Getino, Juan. (2014). Earth’s Rotation: A Challenging Problem in Mathematics and Physics. Pure and Applied Geophysics. 172. 57-74. 10.1007/s00024-014-0879-7.

https://www.researchgate.net/publication/271681663_Earth's_Rotation_A_Challenging_Problem_in_Mathematics_and_Physics

6) Leick, Alfred (1978) The  Observability  of  the  Celestial  Pole and  its  Nutations; Prepared  for National  Aeronautics  and  Space  Administration, Goddard  Space  Flight  Center, NSG  5265  jZ6  5; OSURF  Project  711055, Reports  of  the  Department  of  Geodetic  Science, No. 262

https://ntrs.nasa.gov/search.jsp?R=19780025003

[Paul Dunbavin – November 2019]